In a year that has consumed some of the largest and oldest department stores and pushed many retail chains to the brink, the LetterJ boutique — a single-location menswear boutique in New York City’s Chelsea gallery district — has managed to survive and thrive where others have failed.
According to owner and retail industry veteran Jason Somerfeld, who has worked in retail since he was in high school in Long Island, being small and nimble has made all the difference for this eight-year-old enterprise, which has a website and social media presence but eschews eCommerce sales.
“I feel there’s a huge advantage to being a brick-and-mortar because we react with the times immediately,” Somerfeld told PYMNTS. “If we see a trend happening or something unexpected happens — like the pandemic, where everybody is suddenly wearing casual and we needed to change on a dime and adjust our inventories to fewer blazers and fewer dress shirts to more comfy-casual — we are able to do that quickly.”
The result, per LetterJ’s catalog-like website, is a “casually cool men’s boutique with an industrial artisan vibe” that Somerfeld said specializes in hand-picked styles and merchandise that consumers can’t easily find anywhere else.
Decades of Change
Looking back on his three-plus decade career, Somerfeld said the retail business is “night and day” different from when he was starting out, and that has had a “domino effect” on the industry.
“Fashion has changed. Communication has changed. Editorial has changed — and all of that has had a domino effect on fashion retail,” he said. “People used to have to go to stores to discover things and find new things and looks. It was fun,” he added, lamenting the loss of the department store and brick-and-mortar browsing experience at the hands of online retailing.
“That’s why we work really hard to find exclusives and unique brands that only sell in one store per city, and it’s why we travel the world to curate a different experience for the client and for the customer,” Somerfeld explained. “So when customers come here, besides offering terrific personal service, we have products that are very hard to find anywhere else — and we’re also about the touch and feel.”
Of course, that wasn’t possible during the pandemic, so when longtime city-dwelling customers found themselves marooned in the Hamptons or Florida for months rather than weeks, Somerfeld — like so much of the business world — pivoted to Zoom calls to reinvent and restock their wardrobes.
Expect the Unexpected
With a degree from New York’s famed FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and a professional background as a senior corporate executive at brands including Saks and Burlington, Somerfeld saw an opportunity to go out on his own as the office-casual look was emerging.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘I don’t have to wear suits to work anymore, but I work in finance, so how do I do this?’” he said of serving the fashion challenge that allows men to look comfortable and sophisticated at the same time.
Where the iconic department stores along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue would buy clothes by the thousands, it is not uncommon for Somerfeld and LetterJ to stock just six or eight pieces of a particular garment.
“With [the large retail chains and online stores], it’s more of a numbers game and a real estate game. It’s not where you go to find fantastic stuff anymore. It’s just a spreadsheet that at the end of the day has to please the investors,” he said. “Whereas with small boutiques that are locally owned and operated, we really try to focus on niche-driven markets and to offer a special experience.”
Not an Easy Business
For those who have dreamed of opening their own shop, Somerfeld — who also taught at FIT for five years — has a few bits of advice: “One thing I always told my students is to definitely follow your passion, and only go into this business if you love it, because it’s very very hard work,” he said, noting that his own work goes beyond the store’s 55-hour-per-week business hours. “I am in the store six days a week, but I love what I do. So if you don’t love it, retail is just too difficult.”
Besides the work ethic, Somerfeld said he has also learned the importance of doing what works for the store, rather than what’s best for himself. “There are brands that I don’t like buying from and there are people I don’t like dealing with, but at the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for the business,” he said, as one example of his front- and back-end job duties and decisions.
“There are always things that are challenging and not fun to do, but they’re all very important. It takes a lot of discipline to balance all of that — and quite frankly, a lot of people just don’t have it in them to do it,” he cautioned would-be entrepreneurs.
In short, Somerfeld highlighted the need to balance a mix of nuanced traits that are often conflicting — such as the need to be bold but also to be smart — as keys to his success, along with an unwavering belief in himself.
“It’s not the time in fashion and retail to play it safe,” he said. “You have to take a risk and have a vision and be different and stick to it. That’s what people respect — whether it’s retail, a coffee shop or a restaurant, people like something that’s unique.”